BUCKSPORT — Body armor might stop bullets and look cool, but it sure is uncomfortable.
“You sweat like crazy underneath,” said Detective Sgt. David Winchester of the Bucksport Police Department, while wearing his Type IIIA U.S. Armor ballistic vest.
While the vest stops handgun bullets from coming in, it also stops sweat from going out.
“My shift started at 3, and at 3:05 I was soaked just sitting in front of the air-conditioning,” Winchester said.
“It’s heavy. It’s sitting right against your skin,” he added. “So think of the Bucksport Bay Festival when it’s 90 degrees out and you’re in all black walking out there.”
All that sweat and the grind of daily duty take a toll on the panels of Kevlar mesh inside the vests. Winchester said that as the years go by, the mesh gets pulled apart and becomes less effective at stopping bullets.
“After a while they [the manufacturers] say that they’re not trustworthy to wear,” he said.
That’s why Bucksport replaces its ballistic vests every five years. The department’s current stock is already four years old, so replacements will be needed soon. The problem is that vests aren’t just uncomfortable. They are also expensive.
“I think these ones are $850 apiece,” Winchester said, pointing at his vest.
With eight full-time officers to buy armor for, the department’s wardrobe update gets pricey fast. That’s why Winchester just completed an application for a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, which would help cover the cost of the replacements.
“The town does have to kick in some funds,” Winchester said. “But it’s a lot better that having to do 100 percent.”
The detective sergeant said that police departments usually get the grant if they apply for it. If Bucksport is successful, the department will have a year to choose from a wide range of Department of Justice-approved vest manufacturers.
“I think the next ones we’re going to get are lighter, probably IIA,” Winchester said. “We’ll research the companies and see if there are any deals out there.”
A vest that’s too tight makes it hard to breathe, while a vest that’s too long makes sitting down uncomfortable. Once the department chooses a brand, officers will get measured for their own custom-fitted vest.
The old vests, meanwhile, are worn by volunteer bad guys during the department’s paintball training. It’s the circle of life for a life-saving piece of equipment.
“What other job in the world requires you to put on body armor to go to work?” Winchester said. “I won’t go to work in a uniform without wearing it. It’s common sense.”